It’s clear that Nintendo is vesting a lot in its newest mini-game compilation, Nintendo Land, going as far as calling it the Wii U equivalent of Wii Sports (and even devoting the last leg of its press conference to demonstrating the title). While I can’t speak for the overall quality of the game, as less than half of its proposed twelve attractions were playable on the showfloor, what I did get to try out left me questioning whether or not it would be able to achieve the lofty goal that Nintendo set before it.
That’s not to say that the mini-games that make up Nintendo Land are bad; rather, the ones that the company chose to display at its booth ranged from entertaining to simply mediocre. It also didn’t help that at least two of them were conceptually recycled from games that the company had already released, making the corporate hype behind Nintendo Land feel a bit hollow. Still, each of them used the Wii U GamePad (often in conjunction with the Wii Remote) in a unique way, showing off the range of possibilities afforded by the controller.
Ironically enough, the mini-game that I enjoyed the least was the one that Nintendo decided to single out during its press conference: Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. As you may remember, this particular game has four players– each armed with a Wii Remote– scouring a small mansion while a fifth player uses the Wii U GamePad to control the ghost haunting it. This ghost is invisible to the four players with Wii Remotes, but each time it approaches one of them, their controller begins to rumble. Unfortunately, as the ghost cannot be seen by the other players (and as the rumble gives no indication as to which direction the ghost is coming from), the one with the GamePad has a distinct advantage over all of the others, which was definitely apparent during my time with the demo: in our group session, the player with the GamePad always won the round decisively. That could certainly be attributed to everyone’s unfamiliarity with the controls, but the fact that each round lasted roughly a minute doesn’t bode well for the game’s replayability.
On the other end of the spectrum is Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, another five-player attraction which uses four Wii Remotes and the GamePad. While this may initially sound similar to Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (and it is, what with its emphasis on teamwork against a common enemy), where this particular game succeeds is in its balance and strategic nuances. Unlike the previous mini-game, the player with the GamePad does not necessarily have an advantage over the ones with Wii Remotes. Here, the object is to collect the specified amount of candy while avoiding the two guards patrolling the area, who are controlled by the player with the GamePad. The more candy you collect, the slower your movement becomes, leaving you susceptible to attack from these guards, but you can drop some candy and lighten your load with the press of the 1 button, allowing you to escape from the guards in a pinch. This opens up plenty of avenues for strategy among the four players with Wii Remotes (one player can act as a decoy and distract the guards while the others run around collecting candy, for example, or one can only pick up the pieces of candy that the other players drop), really encouraging everyone to work together to accomplish their collective goal.
The other three games were all also enjoyable in their own ways, but none of them really stood out as system-sellers. The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, while perhaps the most compelling mini-game based on its name alone, was in reality a co-operative take on Wii Sports Resort’s Swordplay Showdown. In this attraction, two players wield their Wii Remotes as swords while a third uses the GamePad as a bow, aiming at the screen to take out enemies from a distance (or to shoot one of the other players in the back, if they have a penchant for douchebaggery). All three must work together to battle their way through an on-rails dungeon, which culminates in a boss battle against a larger– and more deadly– foe. While it’s certainly a lot of fun to hack through a level alongside two friends (and it definitely feels very rewarding as the entire team shares a health bar), its similarity to Wii Sports Resort makes it feel a little underwhelming in the face of Nintendo’s promise. Still, I very much enjoyed my time with this demo, and I’d say it was the second-best of Nintendo Land’s offerings.
The final two attractions, Takamaru’s Ninja Castle and Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, were both original concepts (or at least partially, as Ninja Castle was born out of the throwing star demo on display at last year’s event), but neither reached the same heights as Sweet Day or Battle Quest. In Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, players tilt the GamePad left and right to guide their little vehicle through a Donkey Kong-inspired maze, taking care not to tilt too wildly and crash into one of the obstacles. In Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, players swipe their hand across the GamePad’s touch screen to throw stars at the on-screen ninjas that pop up. Both were simple, solo affairs that were fun in a visceral way, but neither had the depth necessary to encourage repeated plays.
In the end, it seems the success of Nintendo Land will depend entirely upon whether or not the company decides to pack it in with the Wii U hardware. While it’s certainly possible that the mini-games not on the showfloor all make even better use of the GamePad’s unique features, the ones on display were not compelling enough to justify purchasing Nintendo Land if it were a retail release (unless it were budget priced). As a tech demo of the GamePad’s functionality, it certainly does an adequate job of introducing new players to the controller’s possibilities, especially if they may have missed out on Pac-Man Vs. or Wii Sports Resort the first time around. But as a genuine gaming experience meant to attract consumers to the system, Nintendo Land still has quite a ways to go before it can be considered the next Wii Sports.